My Read-Through of the Hugos: 1971

I’ve almost completed my read-through of the top science fiction books of all time and was casting about for something else to do. I decided that reading through the list of Hugo award winners and nominees wasn’t a bad way to spend my time. Here are the nominees and the winner of the 1971 Hugo Awards. I’ve marked the winner as well as my own choice for which novel would win, had I the choice among the nominees. I included a brief overview discussion of the year’s nominees at the beginning. As always, there will be SPOILERS for the books discussed.

1971- Sometimes people ask me why I enjoy reading lists so much. Being handed a bunch of choices made by someone else isn’t always the most enjoyable thing, as any high school student can tell you. The reason I like lists is because it forces me to read things I may otherwise never have encountered. 1971 is a year that proved that for me again. The Year of the Quiet Sun is an absolutely fantastic book that I’m sure I never would have read otherwise. I liked it so much that I even wrote a longer post on it in my Vintage Sci-Fi series. The other books this year are widely variant in my enjoyment of them. My third time through Ringworld made me both like and dislike aspects of it more than ever before. I may try more of the series soon. Tau Zero was… not great, yet again. I don’t know if I’ve liked almost anything by Poul Anderson. He may be outside my taste. Star Light by Hal Clement is a great example of the pitfalls of hard sci-fi. Tower of Glass is another great Silverberg novel, exploring themes that go far beyond the surface.

Ringworld by Larry Niven (Winner) Grade: C+
I’ve now read this book twice and a third time on audiobook for various lists. The audiobook helped me really focus in on certain parts of it that I’d kind of skimmed before. I think the first half or so of the book is quite strong. Niven makes compelling aliens that are different enough from humans to seem truly alien–a gift he displays in other books as well. But once all the initial drama is out of the way and the mysterious nature of Ringworld is revealed… it all seems kind of ho hum from there. The immediacy of the breakdown of civilization on Ringworld is difficult to believe and somewhat forced. The strong sense of mystery when the Ringworld is first revealed is a letdown in its payoff. And the characters don’t hold interest after a while. But the first half was such compelling reading that slogging through the incredibly uneven back half is at least partially forgiven. I’m thinking I may finally go and get the next couple to read them, just to see if we get a better payoff for the ideas Niven developed earlier in the book. So, I guess my overall thoughts are that this was a mixed bag. The hard sci-fi elements were fascinating, and I loved the ideas for various aliens. But once the plot truly got rolling, it seemed to fizzle out instead of all come together.

Tau Zero by Poul Anderson Grade: D+
It’s hard sci-fi with all the ups and downs of the subgenre. Fewer ups than downs are present. It’s a good example of the things that can go wrong with hard sci-fi. Anderson actually pauses for paragraphs at a time to explain to his readers concepts like relativity. Perhaps that was necessary or seen as stylistically acceptable when it was written, but it disrupts the flow of the novel repeatedly. Is this an intro to physics textbook or a novel? It’s hard to tell. The plot isn’t terrible interesting, either. A colonization ship runs into a problem with a nebula; science and fake science ensues to try to solve it. Much misogyny is the name of the game when it comes to character interactions. Women are vessels for sexually explicit fantasies. The book is barely readable, in my opinion, and notable perhaps only for its helping establish the subgenre as something to be pursued. Easy to pass up now, and I’ve read it twice! Curse my commitment to reading lists! But it pays off sometimes (see below, The Year of the Quiet Sun).

Tower of Glass by Robert Silverberg Grade: A
I read this book a second time as I came up on time to write this review, and I’m glad I did. I can safely say that the first time I read it, I didn’t understand it. I mean, I got the general idea of it as a kind of play on the Tower of Babel and the like, but I don’t think I got it. This time, I think I did, though, as always, the author may disagree with my reading. Anyway, the general plot is that there’s a possible alien intelligence trying to communicate with Earth from a star that doesn’t seem capable of supporting life, and the word’s richest man is building an enormous tower to try to communicate with these alleged aliens. Krug, the wealthy man, became so by creating Androids, who have since been assigned hierarchy based upon their abilities. What he doesn’t know (nor do any humans, apparently) is that the androids have made their own religion, turning Krug into a god, complete with a kind of Trinitarian theology and scripture. The androids dream of freedom, and throughout the book this is a major driving force of the plot. But when their freedom isn’t granted, the androids rebel, ultimately tearing down the tower, though some who remain loyal to Krug send him on his spaceship in cryo-sleep to see the aliens. None of these threads are tied off. Indeed, the book is full of loose threads at the end, but I didn’t mind. It forces you as a reader to sit and think about it. This is a book that I keep thinking more about every time I consider it. There’s so much going on in it, and I loved it.

The Year of the Quiet Sun by Wilson Tucker (My Winner) Grade: A
I’d not read Wilson Tucker before I dug this gem out of a pile somewhere online. It seems intensely out of print–no ebook edition (a problem I’ve run into more than once on this quest, to be fair), and many copies prohibitively expensive. Finally found an edition that collected it with a few other novels. Anyway, this book is stuffed with themes. Whether intentional or not, the way that the main character’s work and person is connected to many, many aspects of this time travel novel make it a wellspring of reflection. Brian Chaney, the main character, translated an ancient work that appears to show the book of Revelation is not, in fact, from the time of Christ but rather a few hundred years before. This side piece of information looms large on reflecting the major themes of the novel itself, but it’s done so subtly that it is easy to miss. Alongside this, Chaney is sent to a disturbingly possible future and the bleakness is so thick that the book is probably not for the faint of heart. It’s not flawless, as it has a decent helping of misogyny and the characters are rather thin. But overall, the novel is one of those I can’t stop thinking about, even weeks after finishing it. For that, it ranks among the masterworks for me. I couldn’t contain my thoughts on this fabulous book by Wilson Tucker in a single paragraph, so I wrote a lengthy reflection shortly after finishing it.

Star Light by Hal Clement Grade: C+
Hard science fiction is one of my favorite sub-genres of sci-fi. I just love having all the science piled on–whether real or fake–to dress up the plot in a veneer of lab coats and testable predictions. That’s not sarcasm–I truly do love this sub-genre. But there is a huge, common pitfall in hard sci-fi: it is easy to allow the plot to be reduced to a vehicle for the introduction of science. This is no different from the pitfall of other sub-genres, but it seems extremely common in hard sci-fi. Star Light falls headfirst into that pitfall, and perhaps does so willingly as Hal Clement delightfully waxes eloquent on various scientific concepts–both real and imaginary–throughout the novel to the extent that it became difficult, in my opinion, to focus on the characters and the plot in any meaningful way. It’s not a bad novel, and it kept me turning the pages, but it wasn’t anything fantastic. Due to the intense, constant focus on the science, there was little development of characters or even background for them. It’s fine, but not great. The edition linked includes both Star Light and Mission of Gravity. The former is superior, in my opinion.


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Vintage Sci-Fi: “The Year of the Quiet Sun” by Wilson Tucker

Vintage Sci-Fi Month is over (it’s in January), but that doesn’t mean it’s time to stop reading vintage sci-fi. After great response to my posts during January, I’ve decided to make it an ongoing feature to read and review individual vintage sci-fi books. As I recall, the rule for calling something “Vintage” is that it was written before you were born, but feel free to adjust that as you like.

The Year of the Quiet Sun by Wilson Tucker

I like lists, so I’ve been reading through all the Hugo Award winners and nominees from the beginning. This brought me to The Year of the Quiet Sun by Wilson Tucker, an author whose work I’ve not read before. It’s about time travel. Time travel is difficult to do well, in my opinion. I’ve even written a piece on the problems I see in most time travel-related fiction. Basically, they tend to fall into the error of being historical fiction with some sci-fi trappings or going down the endless whirlpool of time travel paradoxes. Tucker completely avoids the first possible error and only touches the second. There will be SPOILERS in my discussion.

Basically, The Year of the Quiet Sun is a bleak story of the future. But there is much more going on in this pithy novel than that. Brian Chaney, a biblical scholar and demographer, is enlisted by Kathryn van Hise to go to the future in order to test a time travel machine. Chaney caused much controversy already in his publication of a midrash that predates the New Testament by a couple hundred years that appears to be the basis for the book of Revelation. That was a mistake. Now hated basically worldwide, he just wants a quiet life away from the public eye. Chaney and others are sent to see what the next election will foretell the current President. Such an act is so perfectly cynical in its political lack of finesse that it plays even better today than it ought. After all, who couldn’t see our current leadership using such a fantastic tool for such a short-sighted goal? 

Anyway, they find that the President did get re-elected while also viciously crushing a coup attempt. But when the characters go forward in time even farther, they discover apocalyptic war and societal breakdown, resulting in the death of one character and Chaney finding the base from which he’s traveled in disrepair. When he speaks with Kathryn, he notes all the horrible events and how the time travel project itself essentially presaged them. He asks how he gets the information back in time to prevent the awful future he now faces, and Kathryn points out that because the nuclear reactor is burned out, he cannot return. And here we find that Chaney is, in fact, a black man and due to various ways the wars played out, he is distrusted completely due to the color of his skin. Kathryn, we find, is the only one who won’t be terrified of him purely based on his race. And thus big reveal, coupled with his own plight, is where we readers are left, contemplating the horror of the whole scenario. 

The book isn’t flawless. It suffers from no small amount of misogyny. Women are mostly judged on their looks, and the word “cad” is used in a teasing light. Serial sexual harassment is funny, right? Wrong. Thankfully, this doesn’t become an overwhelming part of the narrative, though Kathryn never rises much above being a foil for Brian’s–and other characters’–fantasies. The *short) length and pacing of the novel are limiting factors. Leaving me wanting more isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the slow burn at the beginning of the book sparks and explodes into the climactic scenes so swiftly that I wish Tucker had developed the actual time traveling scenes more fully. The final plot twists came in a storm that had me flipping back several pages to see if I’d missed something.

The edition I purchased of the book includes an introduction to the work which features a lengthy quote from Tucker about the novel in which he states that others have found themes in the book he didn’t intend to include. He doesn’t discourage this, but instead rather modestly basks in the wonder of having created something people read and enjoy so much. It’s a neat moment, but having read the theme that he specifically talks about–water as a recurring event that cleanses throughout the book–I can’t help but see it as a major theme of the book! This, despite Tucker denying it! But that’s what makes this book so good, in my opinion. Something that makes it last. It is completely full to the gills of these themes. What exactly is meant by the Qumran Midrash–somewhat erroneously taken as a fictional account rather than commentary–in the book? The parallels with Revelation are telling, and the lake of fire being paralleled by the literal lake of radioactive fire that was Lake Michigan’s future is also spot on. Is the finding of an ancient text disproof of Christianity? Tucker doesn’t push that narrative and in fact seems to be urging more care given to reading ancient texts and, interestingly, texts about ancient texts. 

Then, the final twist: having Chaney revealed as a black man was surprising in many ways. First: it confronts readers about their assumptions. Yes, I assumed he was white because the book was written in the 70s as sci-fi. More to the point, I assumed he was white because I always assume main characters are like me. Intentional or not, this made me think about implicit bias and racism that can occur–something I’m clearly capable of being guilty of as much as anyone else. Second: the plot twist forces readers in to the uncomfortable position of thinking about their own racial fears. Third: it twists itself into circles because the black man is feared–exactly what is being confronted in America today and certainly no less so in the 70s when the book was written. It’s an ingenius twist that isn’t quite given enough time in the plot to stew and simmer. But that doesn’t take away its power. In fact, it may amplify it. The twist leaves readers with it as one of the final impressions in the novel and makes us think about it, discomfort and all.

The Year of the Quiet Sun is a somber, subtle read. It requires attention to details and searching for meaning. Tucker filled this book to the brim and overflowing with themes–intentional or not–that demand reading and re-reading and careful reflection. For this, I would consider it a masterpiece-level work. It calls for reflection. Read the book, please! Go! Do so! And do it with an open mind, ready to reflect. This isn’t a “fun read,” but it’s a great one.


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